Human dignity can't be left at jailhouse door - Catholic Courier

Human dignity can’t be left at jailhouse door

"America’s Toughest Sheriff" is back in the headlines, this time as the subject of a federal suit.

The U.S. Justice Department sued Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio earlier last month for allegedly refusing to cooperate with a federal investigation into accusations that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office discriminates against Hispanics. The suit says he failed to meet a deadline to hand over documents the federal government first asked for 15 months ago, when it started investigating alleged discrimination, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and jail policies.

Arpaio, who prides himself on actually being "America’s Toughest Sheriff," has been in the news since 1993 for his unconventional treatment of county jail inmates. He has required prisoners to wear pink underwear and dress in old-fashioned stripes. He has limited county inmates to two meals a day, reinstituted chain gangs and set up a "tent city" as an extension of the Maricopa County Jail.

While, as a federal case might suggest, there may be something to criticize about Arpaio’s administration, let’s go beyond that and focus on some of the public reaction to Arpaio’s tactics.

The majority of the voters of the county, which includes Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe and other cities, apparently agree with Arpaio, who is now serving his fifth four-year term.

He has been called colorful and controversial, somewhat of a nationwide hero to the tough-on-crime segment of the population.

Of concern is the approval for the actions.

Demeaning prisoners by forcing them to dress in pink underwear and marching them through city streets is an attack on dignity, as is reducing meals to twice a day and boasting of the cost saving.

But this has found favor over the past two decades with website blog comments such as this one:

"More need to take a lesson from the sheriff. Jail needs to stop being a fun place to rest for a while. Jail is not a club. Treat these people like (they) had their freedoms taken away, not as though they are residing at a health club with cable TV and any other niceties."

In 2009, the federal government ended an agreement with Arpaio that allowed his deputies to enforce immigration law. Despite that, the sheriff has continued his sweeps of Hispanic neighborhoods to enforce state immigration laws.

Being "tough on crime" does not mean dehumanizing the criminal.

History shows what happens when a class of people — whether by race, gender or religion — is denied the right to human dignity.

Branding, whether forcing an ethnic group to sew a symbol to their clothing or requiring inmates to wear pink underwear, has led to horrible things.

It may be a long leap, but when is it time to take the first step to call attention to it and deny its acceptance?

This glorification of this "no coddling criminals" tactic at the expense of human rights should make us uncomfortable.

"Any system of penal justice must provide those necessities that enable inmates to live in dignity: food, clothing, shelter, personal safety, timely medical care, education, and meaningful work adequate to the conditions of human dignity," U.S. bishops wrote in a 2000 pastoral, "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice."

They assert this because "all are created in the image of God and possess a dignity, value and worth that must be recognized, promoted, safeguarded and defended."

God-given rights should not be left at the jailhouse door.

Kent is retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle.

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